Franco: Chicago Based Painter Wins Leonardo Da Vinci Prize


African Beginning of the Road to the Prize

The Leonardo da Vinci prize is one of the world’s most coveted and prestigious honors that can be bestowed upon an artist. Who would have predicted during his humble beginnings in the Equatorial African Country of Malawi, that young Franco Kwacha Mbilizi was headed for such an honor? However, there were early signs that this now Chicago-based, celebrated painter, had a unique vision and sensitivity. Signs of this young,now internationally celebrated artist being special. He was observed as having a special sensitivity, a deep emotionality, a spiritual depth. His thirst to know the Truth was noticed early in his life.

Extraordinary Expressions from Franco



Your first glance at a “Franco” impresses you that a unique and memorable mind and heart must be behind the creation, from the unique interplay of geometrical shapes, scientific symbols and powerful use of colors, to extraordinary titles such as “Atonement”, “Killing the One Who Keeps the Light”, “The Leap” and “Beware of the Machine Riders”.  You will get this impression whether experiencing his work at his studio in Chicago’s Gold Coast/North Michigan area, at the 2016 Tokyo International Art Fair, in the lobby of Chicago’s famed Conrad Hilton Hotel, or at

From Africa to Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue

Franco, as he likes to be called, says he’s been drawing and painting practically all of his life. As 1st Amendment Media toured his Chicago studio, he lovingly remembers drawing and painting with his late grandfather as a child in Malawi, and even painting somewhat extensively into his adult years. However, Franco has only totally embraced his identity as a painter for about the last three years.

He explains, “I’ve been an artist my whole life but I discovered painting and the universal healing of art brought me harmony.” This may seem contradictory to many, but he has an explanation that tells you a lot about him and his unique commitment to authenticity and a higher calling as an artist, a painter in particular.

Franco’s Passion: to Find His Own Voice

To Franco, finding his own voice and uniqueness was essential to taking on his identity as a painter. “Yeah seriously, I always loved art but I always was, like, scared to paint because if I paint something and someone says it was good, it wasn’t my voice. Because it was like Picasso, [it seemed] I had stolen something I had seen at a show; it wasn’t my voice.”

This need to be uniquely and authentically himself and not be reflecting someone else is something he really felt deeply. He explained, “I was really insecure about that. I wanted to do something that I liked and something that hadn’t been done before. That’s what I wanted.” Well, that’s exactly what he did after three years of painting.

Search for Meaning Drives His Artistic Evolution

FrancoHis search for meaning was a catalyst to his journey as a painter and continues to shape it in major ways. Franco still speaks with deep feelings about being in a really bad place emotionally as he found his unique place as a painter. “I was extremely depressed; this came from like deep pain deep, deep depression all this s*** I’ve been through in my life.”

Franco explicitly and honestly recalls his challenging personal circumstances when he started painting. “Going through my twenties, being angry, doing lots of drugs, wanting to kill myself. And that didn’t work out. And then I just started looking at different ways I could stop being the victim and blaming. I started looking inward, you know, to just look inside, and that’s what came out of that.”

Art Enables Franco to Transcend Boundaries

During this period, he started painting as a means of expressing his authentic emotional and spiritual Truth, unconfined by conventional boundaries or tradition. As Franco describes it, “Painting was an accident. I didn’t sit down and, like, say, ‘Oh, okay I’m going to be an artist now.’  No, I didn’t. I started making art and it made me feel good every time I painted.”  

The very positive reception that his paintings received positively lifted him. It gave him his own identity as a painter. Such a positive reception fed his desire to not only continue to paint but to paint to find and express ultimate Truth as he understands it.

Works of Art Combine Science and Spirit

Defying convention, he readily admits that his deep love of both science and spirituality influence his paintings. “I feel like it’s the same thing, I really do you know. If you look at science, science doesn’t believe in God, right? If you look at religion, religion says they found God, right?. If you look at all the prevailing religions all, of them, like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, they all have the same [story as the] book of Genesis and the first man is Adam. They all say the first man is Adam. Science says if you break EVERYTHING down in the universe, you come to the atom.”

Franco then offers what seems like just a fun challenge. “I want you to do this, say this over and over again ‘Adam Atom Adam Atom’ faster [and] faster.”    Of course, the faster you do this, the more identical the two words sound. However, this is much more than a fun tongue twister for the Leonardo da Vinci prize winner; it is a major revelation and the key to his fundamental view of life, reality and truth.

Is Adam Equal to Atom?

About Adam and atom he says, “You know, so I was like wait a minute! It’s all the same, it’s just a different interpretation. This ‘something’ wanted to get to know itself better. So, it said ‘let there be light.’  I just wonder what it is to be living this out, you know.  I’m just trying to find my place here, to understand it for myself.”  He has an entire exhibit entitled “When Adam met Atom.”

Franco’s insights and continued search for his truth and The truth has yielded his surrealistic, captivating pieces. They have their obvious unique blends of colors, identifiable geometrical shapes, scientific inspiration, powerful religious and spiritual symbols, and extraordinary titles. For him naming his paintings are as much a part of the creative process as painting. Noticing and experiencing the titles are also a significant part of the impressions his works have on the viewer. 

Touching the Heart and Stimulating the Mind

His paintings pull at the viewers’ hearts, but also unobtrusively causes them to find themselves thinking.  Shortly before this article Franco exhibited at the Tokyo International Art Fair. Additionally, he exhibited works at Chicago Innovation Awards, Raw Artist Chicago, Art Expo New York 2015 and Art Basel.  May, June, and July 2016 issues of British GQ Magazine, and British Vogue Magazine’s 100th Year issue released June2016 also featured his paintings. Art lovers owe it to themselves to experience the work of Franco. It will be obvious why he earned the designation “Universal Artist” when he received the Leonardo da Vinci International Prize at Florence, Italy in January 2016 .


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